When a college president is also a tech entrepreneur

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Adrian College president Jeff Docking has some innovative ideas for higher education leaders battling enrollment pressures and market forces. Among them: Rize Education, a for-profit course-sharing company that Docking co-founded and incubated on Adrian’s campus outside Detroit, which develops and teaches online courses through its platform.

Rize was founded in 2019, and Adrian began using the platform the following year. That allowed the college to build out new majors, which in turn brought in students and revenue. Docking told Inside Higher Ed such efforts are a necessary innovation for higher education, offering strapped institutions an affordable way to add courses of study and flexible online programs in an effort to recruit students.

His dual capacity as president of Adrian and co-owner of Rize Education, however, has raised questions about a potential conflict of interest as use of the platform grows. Some faculty members fear Rize’s creep into the college’s general education courses and worry that it poses a threat to their jobs; Docking denies any possibility of a conflict of interest.

The Docking Experiments

To understand Adrian College today, it helps to look back to 2005, when Docking became president of an institution that he described as struggling and rudderless at that time. Federal data show Adrian enrolled nearly 1,200 students in 2001, but that number had dwindled to fewer than 1,000 by the time Docking arrived.

“In 2005, we got down to about 840 students; we were hemorrhaging money at the time—about $1 to $3 million a year with no real plan to grow enrollment and a lot of deferred maintenance,” Docking said.

The new president, who had previously served as an administrator at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, quickly developed a plan that involved investing heavily in athletics to attract students. Docking told Adrian’s Board of Trustees his proposal would require an investment of $30 million; he asked the college to borrow $15 million and promised to raise the rest.

“I put together a model to grow enrollment quickly, and we did. We basically doubled in enrollment over five to six years, essentially through leveraging co-curricular activities,” he said.

A scan of Adrian’s athletics website reveals a multitude of sports offerings, including traditional programs like football and basketball as well as less common—but cheaper—sports such as cornhole and synchronized figure skating, plus emerging programs in fields like esports.

Some faculty members said the experiment generated excitement and boosted revenue, though both have fallen off in recent years.

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“That was a good model. It worked. He just ran out of inexpensive sports. Then he kept trying and brought in a few expensive sports. And I think that maybe didn’t work so well. He did everything he could with that and I think maybe went a little too far, but it worked, at least initially,” said one faculty member who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation by Docking.

(Docking disputes the notion that he has or would retaliate against his critics on campus. The anonymous professor said the president has done exactly that through a past layoff attempt that was only reversed after alumni pressured the university to keep threatened positions in the humanities.)

New sports programs weren’t the only Docking innovation to bolster Adrian. Data available on the website show that unlike most liberal arts colleges, Adrian’s enrollment has boomed, increasing from under 1,000 students in 2005 to roughly 1,900 today. Docking credits that growth in large part to the role Rize Education has played in allowing the college to add majors and recruit students.

Over the last two years, Adrian has added a total of 17 programs through Rize—a mix of majors, minors and certificates.

“The way Rize works at Adrian College is we offer certain majors that we don’t offer exclusively in-house, for example, supply chain management,” explained Tony Coumoundouros, an Adrian faculty member who was serving as faculty president when the college first partnered with Rize Education. “Students who want to major in supply chain management take the bulk of their business courses in-house, face-to-face at Adrian College, and then they take online courses that are supply chain management–specific from an institution that is in the Rize group.”

Those additional programs have boosted student recruiting and ultimately the bottom line.

“We have about 110 students here at the college now that we wouldn’t have gotten without these new majors. That translates to about $8 million,” Docking said.

Rize Education’s potential has been recognized by numerous colleges, as well as by The New York Times, which last year featured a glowing write-up illuminating how liberal arts institutions have partnered with the course-sharing platform to expand their offerings.

But even as more students enroll at Adrian, questions have emerged about whether Docking should remain at the helm of Rize Education.

The Conflict Question

When it comes to dollars and cents, Docking said he has “never asked for a nickel” from Rize Education, noting that he doesn’t draw a monthly salary or any compensation from the company.

But some faculty members and former Adrian employees see it differently. One former faculty member told The Detroit Free Press that she quit over Docking’s potential conflict of interest, arguing that he is hurting faculty by using Adrian as a launching pad for Rize. According to federal data, Adrian listed 97 full-time instructors in 2019, but that number had dropped to 85 by 2021. Fewer faculty members mean more courses and revenue for Rize Education, the argument goes. The anonymous faculty member believes Adrian’s partnership with the course-sharing platform went a step too far when it began offering general education courses through Rize.

Critics also worry that residential students will have a hard time adjusting to the online courses Rize offers—especially those in general education—which they used to take in person on campus.

“If you put a bunch of 17- and 18-year-old freshmen in an online course, there’s not as much supervision, not as much interaction. Some step up to the plate, but some of them get pretty lost in those courses. It’s hard to imagine a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds succeeding in that venue,” said the faculty member who spoke on condition of anonymity, noting that earning a major through the platform was more akin to attending a large online university than a small liberal arts college.

Coumoundouros disputes the notion that Rize Education is watering down the value of an Adrian College campus experience, arguing that students still take most of their classes in person. He also said he doesn’t see evidence that Adrian is using Rize Education as a way to cut faculty.

“I think it’s helping the college stay in a position where it’s competitive,” Coumoundouros said.

Docking suggests that the faculty concerns are related to something else: fear of change.

“The biggest barrier, I think, is that this represents change, and change for institutions that have been around for sometimes over 200 years is very hard,” Docking said, comparing higher education today to the failed video-rental chain Blockbuster, which was upended by streaming.

And Docking believes innovations like course sharing are needed to keep struggling institutions afloat, lest they go the way of Blockbuster as students seek higher education on their terms.

“Small private liberal arts colleges aren’t for everybody, but they work really well for the kids that need them. And the idea that these places would go away, because we’d be unwilling to innovate, or we just want to do things the way we’ve always done—that’s not acceptable,” Docking said.

But does being the president of a college that increasingly relies on a platform he co-owns represent a conflict of interest even if dollars aren’t flowing to Docking? Don Heider, executive director for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, answers with a resounding yes, arguing that Docking has competing interests in Adrian and Rize.

“I think if a president owns an education company, or is invested, they cannot continue to operate that and operate as chief officer of the university. I do think there is an inherent conflict of interest,” Heider said. “I know that the president has said the company is not making him any money, but it doesn’t matter—he is still representing two things, which is a private company and a private university. And that’s always going to be in conflict. The only way he can avoid it, in my view as an ethicist, is to either sell his shares in the company or put it into a blind trust so that he doesn’t know how it’s doing financially and he doesn’t have any control over it. Then he can simply focus on the task at hand, which is running the university.”

There is also the potential for a conflict of commitment. Given that the role of a college president is demanding, Heider said it would be difficult to handle the affairs of a college on a full-time basis while also working to build a growing business like Rize Education.

“How can you have divided interests to run a company, or to at least be advising a company and to run a university? I think it’s problematic because you’re getting paid to be the president of the university. That is not a part-time job, and it’s probably not an 8-to-5, Monday-through-Friday job,” Heider said.

Heider also raises ethical concerns about how Adrian College may be setting Rize Education up for future success, which may not earn Docking a paycheck now but will in the years to come.

“Part of the problem with a for-profit company is it may not be the value you’re getting from a company today, but it might be the value you get in five years or 10 years, and the decisions you make for the university that may involve that company may benefit you in the future,” Heider said.

For his part, Docking argues that neither legal counsel nor college trustees have raised any concerns about his dual roles. And despite the criticism, he doesn’t plan on going anywhere.

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